During the 19th century, Canadians liked to drink, maybe even more so than today. In an Upper Canada census in 1851, it was found there were 1,999 taverns, which amounted to one tavern for every 478 people. As such, issues such as domestic abuse, drunkenness and the poverty related to it was rampant.
As with in the United States, the temperance movement began to gain steam, believing that banning alcohol would end those troubles and bring about better days for everyone. Of course, the problems were much more complex than that, but at the time, it seemed like a good solution.
While Canada would enact national prohibition by an Order in Council on April 1, 1918, that ban only lasted one year.
In the provinces though, prohibition bans would come into effect in varying years, and last for a much longer time.
The first place in Canada, after Confederation, to enact prohibition was the Northwest Territories in 1874. It would remain in place until 1891.
For most of Canada, From British Columbia to Nova Scotia, prohibition was enacted in succeeding waves from 1916 to 1921 and most of these would only remain in place for five to seven years. In Quebec, it lasted less than one year.
Then there is Prince Edward Island.
Beginning in 1901, the province would enact prohibition and while the rest of the country would follow years later and repeal it soon after, Prince Edward Island doubled down. The last major province to repeal prohibition was Nova Scotia, which had it in place for nine years from 1921 to 1930. Prince Edward Island would continue for nearly two decades after that.
It would not be until 1948 that the province finally repealed prohibition.
Today, I’m looking at the nearly half century of prohibition in Prince Edward Island.
In 1878, the Canada Temperance Act, also known as the Scott Act, provided a national framework for municipalities to opt in by a vote to a scheme of prohibition, without making entire country dry. Several counties in 1879 in New Brunswick would use the act to ban alcohol, while various other counties in other provinces would do so between 1880 and 1915. This law would actually remain on the books until it was finally repealed in 1984.
In 1898, Canada had looked at introducing prohibition and while it featured widespread support across Canada, it was overwhelmingly opposed in Quebec. As such, the country did not implement it at that time but that would spawn the movement in Prince Edward Island to implement its own temperance effort soon after.
By 1899, the temperance laws on the island were being called radical by eastern newspapers and had been in place for a decade by that point. The law stated, quote:
“Any person who shall…give any person any liquor, in any tavern, or place where liquor is sold, shall be guilty of an offence against this act and liable, on summary convictions before the magistrate, to a penalty of no less than $2 and no more than $5.”
In addition to the fine, which would amount to $65 to $165 today, those found guilty could end up spending between 10 and 25 days in jail.
The hours in which liquor could be sold was also heavily limited. All bars had to close on Saturdays by 6 p.m. and stay closed until 8 a.m. on Monday. Bars were also closed every Dominion and provincial holiday and the only place where liquor was sold on Tuesdays or Fridays after 7 p.m. was Charlottetown. The importation of liquor was heavily taxed as well, as much as $50 to $100, while breweries were taxed a staggering $400. Any traveler coming to the province was required to pay $20, but if they were traveling for liquor houses, they would pay $200.
For most people, the only place to get any alcohol was in Charlottetown.
As a result of this, Prince Edward Island actually had a very low instance of alcohol consumption. Of all the provinces at the time, each person drank an average of half a gallon of liquor per year, well below the national average of four gallons and far below British Columbia at 8.75 gallons. Of the offences that could be linked to alcohol, there was only a .12 per 1,000 people rate, compared to the 1.56 per 1,000 people rate of British Columbia, and .63 per 1,000 people rate of Canada as a whole.
Even as Canada continued to debate a temperance law in 1900, one Liberal MP from the province stated that if such a law was asked for and passed, it could be tried in Prince Edward Island and the rest of the country could watch the experiment in that province and see how it worked.
By the time 1901 rolled around, nearly every place in Prince Edward Island, except Charlottetown, prohibited the sale of alcohol. The problem was that people would just go to Charlottetown to get alcohol and then go home elsewhere. The provincial government attempted to pass a license act but the counties would not agree to this and the opposition was enough it would bring down the government. At the same time, Charlottetown would not enact prohibition. The province would solve this problem by passing its own prohibition act, which passed unanimously, and covered the entire province. It is not surprising that the act passed considering Premier Donald Farquharson had abstained from alcohol his entire life.
In June of that year, prohibition went into effect in the province. The law did not keep liquor out of the province as the law could not prevent the importation of liquor and people could go out of province and buy liquor if they so chose. There was nothing stopping people from buying wholesale alcohol, or alcohol for medicinal purposes. What the prohibition law would put into force was the legal retail trade of alcohol and the opportunities to indulge in it. The penalties under this new prohibition law were severe as well. The first offence was a $100 fine, or about $3,500 today. A second offence would cost a person $200. A third offence would be much harsher, with six months in jail with no option of making a monetary payment.
The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:
Once the law went into effect, it did not stop liquor dealers from continuing to ply their trade. The Regina Leader Post reported, quote:
“Prohibition went into force in Prince Edward last Wednesday week. Quite a number of liquor men continued to sell and the premier stated that an attempt would be made to enforce the law.”
Saloons openly violated the law as well in the province but their time was limited.
By July, of the 30 liquor sellers in the province, 75 per cent were out of business and the remaining liquor sellers were committed to fight the law and were appealing the charges levied against them under the law. The liquor sellers were quoted as stating, quote:
“The liquor sellers attempted to drive through the law by declaring that what they sold was only beer. Whiskey or brandy or such liquors were taken as intoxicants but beer was not necessarily so. Yet if a man would come forward and state that he had drunk beer at a certain saloon and had become inebriated the seller of that beer would be prosecuted.”
By December, reports of heavy fines were reaching newspapers. On Dec. 16, the Charlottetown police imposed fines of $4 on three men charged with being drunk, while one man was fined $100 and one was fined $200 for selling liquor.
Over the next month, liquor continued to be a serious problem and at least four serious crimes, including two that resulted in murder, would occur and were traced to drinking in local establishments.
The Vancouver Daily World would state, quote:
“So far, prohibition so-called seems to have been a saddening failure as a preventative of liquor selling and drinking in Prince Edward Island.”
The issue over the law would reach the Prince Edward Island Supreme Court by January 1902. The court would declare that provincial prohibition was constitutional but would not state how the legislation could be made more practical and effective in operation.
The enforcement of prohibition fell on the Chief Inspector and various other inspectors who worked under him. These inspectors had broad powers to arrest and search people they suspected of selling liquor. The job was not easy and it was noted that there was a high turnover rate among the inspectors.
In 1918, a major change would come to the prohibition act, when it was almost completely rewritten. This new act created a six-member Board of Commissioners who were appointed for a three-year term for the Lt. Governor. This commission, usually made up of clergy, was given the power to licence one wholesale vendor and as many retail vendors as was deemed necessary. These retail vendors replaced the druggists and pharmacists who had filled the role for the past 17 years. The retail vendors could sell to any person who presented a prescription of 24 ounces of wine or spirits and 12 quarts of ale no more than once a day. If the person lived more than 10 miles from the vendor, that amount could be doubled.
Of course, as with the doctors and druggists, it did not take long for people to find a way to work around the system and with sympathetic retail vendors, it was possible to get plenty of alcohol. To combat this, only one year later in 1919, a script system was introduced. These scripts were pre-printed prescriptions that were supplied by the Commission to physicians. Each of the scripts was serial numbered and this would allow the commission to control how many prescriptions were handed out.
In 1928, the six-member commission was abolished and a new commission, appointed by the Lt. Governor and consisting of a chairman and two members was established.
As America would find out when it implemented prohibition, if you stop people from getting something easily, they will find another way to get it and pay handsomely for it. In Charlottetown, Summerside and Albertown, it was possible to pay $1 for a doctor’s script, and $4 for a bottle of brandy. Bottles of beer, for a case of 12, would cost $20 to $25, amounting to over $300 today.
As the 1930s began and The Great Depression took hold, one thriving business that could pay the bills was rumrunning.
With The Great Depression, the price of crops sank and for an island where potatoes were the cash crop, making only 10 cents a bushel was not going to cut it.
Tommy Gallant would tell of his father who had a thriving rumrunning business. He would state, quote:
Gallant’s father would hide the alcohol in the woods, or sink it in New London Bay using scrap steel.
Gallant states, quote:
“On his way home with a load of rum, 10-gallon kegs, he would run a long line and he’d put all this steel on it and tie the kegs to it. Of course it would all go to the bottom and then he had a great landmark and at night he’d take out the dory and he’d pull up one end and he’d take a keg ashore.”
Rumrunners would also hide alcohol in barrels, filled with salt and fish, or even put the alcohol under furrows in plowed fields. One man who grew up at that time stated that at least two churches were used as hiding places for rum and other alcohol.
The police would always try to catch the rumrunners, but they had plenty of tricks up their sleeves. This included landing with rum when everyone’s attention was diverted, simply by paying someone to make a commotion so that the rumrunners could get their illegal alcohol ashore.
Rumrunners would also steal from each other as well, with the business in alcohol being so lucrative.
Possibly the most famous bootlegger of the type was Edward Dicks, who sailed the Nellie J. Banks to several rumrunning adventures. The ship had been built in 1910 and was launched that same year, but it was in 1926 that Ray Clarke and Captain Dicks bought the ship for $2,000, seeing that it was the perfect vessel to smuggle alcohol in.
One year later in July of 1927, she was seized by the coastguard ship Bayfield.
When he was arrested, Captain Dicks accused the Canadian government of piracy for taking his cargo, stating he would proceed against the government in the matter. He would say, quote:
“I am not a law breaker. I am in a legitimate business. They call me a smuggler. That is wrong. I am a rumrunner.”
The Bayfield didn’t just seize the Nellie J. Banks though, she also seized three other ships, including the Stella R., which was loaded with 3,300 gallons of distilled liquor. The Nellie was loaded with 900 cases of liquor.
After this small setback the ship and its crew went right back to smuggling alcohol into the island. The practice was highly profitable.
The Prince Edward Island government was committed to stopping ships from rumrunning in alcohol. In 1926, only $65.26 worth of liquor was brought in, putting the government in the red in the matter. One year later, the government had seized $30,000 in liquor.
One story from 1927 states that the ship would never come within 10 kilometres of the coast, and on one occasion, had a cargo of 2,000 gallons of rum, which was hidden in the water and which made the captain and the crew $1,500 for one trip, equivalent to $23,700 today.
Rumrunning would typically only happen from the spring to the summer, due to the freezing of the water around Prince Edward Island making it harder to get alcohol to the island. In the winter of 1930, for example, only 20.5 gallons of rum were reported to have been seized. In contrast, during the iceless seasons of 1929, 1,186.75 gallons of rum was seized.
While the government did what it could, it was estimated that while the province had a population of 100,000 people, more than 72,000 gallons of liquor was making its way into the province, and only a small portion of that was being sized. One rumrunning operation sold $142,000 worth of alcohol in one year alone, making $2.8 million in the process, nearly all of it going to doctors who sold it for “medicinal” purposes. As one man would say, quote:
“Prohibition is an impossible thing. The text of a law will never stop people from drinking.”
In 1935, a $5 million smuggling ring, amounting to nearly $100 million today, was broken up by police. The ring, consisting of nine Nova Scotia men and two Prince Edward Island men. Another 20 people were cited as conspirators.
New regulations were put in place that would allow Canadian officials to board and search any vessel with a British registry under 500 tons within 15 kilometres of the coast, where previously that rule only extended out five kilometres, allowing the Nellie J. Banks to remain outside the zone.
In August 1938, she was finally seized by the RCMP cutter Ulna and towed into Charlottetown. When caught, the ship was loaded with 225 cases of alcohol, 50 kegs of rum, 20 cases of gin, 24 cases of whiskey and 20,000 cigarettes.
At the end of the Second World War, the first signs that prohibition would finally be leaving the province emerged. It was in that year that an amendment was made to the Act that allowed a physician to once again prescribe 26 ounces of spirits, 104 ounces of wine or nine quarts of ale to be delivered weekly for six months to a patient if it was deemed beneficial to their health. Once the patient had the prescription, they would exchange it for a warrant which had coupons within it and could be redeemed weekly.
The change in 1945 was seen by most as something without substance with the government selling liquor for beverage purposes under the disguise of medicinal purposes. At the time, it was estimated that per capita, the citizens of Prince Edward Island drank as much as the citizens of Ontario.
The Temperance Act was introduced in 1948 that would repeal the original Prohibition Act and create a Government Liquor Control System, much like had been in other provinces for decades by that point. The new act would allow residents to get a permit to purchase alcohol, while tourists had a special permit. The amount a person could buy at one time did not change from the previous amendment in 1945 and the sale of liquor was allowed in messes, canteens, Legion branches and non-profit clubs.
A pamphlet put out by the government would state, quote:
Under the proposal, if any wife or friend of any person complains that the person is wasting money on alcohol, a justice of the peace will revoke the liquor permit of that person. Anyone who supplied liquor to someone who had their permit revoked was also liable to be sent to jail, with no option to pay a fine.
There had been several plebiscites over the previous four decades asking if people wanted to get rid of prohibition and each time the province voted in favour of staying dry. In 1929, 17,000 electors cast their ballot, with a majority of 218 choosing to have the government continue with prohibition. As such, most expected the new vote would yield the same result.
On June 28, 1948, a plebiscite was held and the residents of Prince Edward Island voted in favour of the new act and on July 6 of that year, the sale of liquor for beverage purposes was once again legal. Among Prince Edward Island residents, there were 19,814 votes for the repealing of prohibition, while 7,338 voted in favour of it. The turnout was about 60 per cent.
The Ottawa Journal would report, quote:
“Now obviously they do not want prohibition and the decent thing was the course they followed of discarding a very transparent umbrella which has failed to hide the fact that our smallest province consumes about as much alcohol per head of the population of our largest province.”
This would be the first time since 1878 that the province voted down prohibition. Many were surprised by the overwhelming victory, which they had least expected to be close.
There would be continued changes to the act for the next 20 years. In 1952, an amendment allowed for the purchase of four weekly rations to be bought at one time and in 1960, all quantity restrictions were removed from the Act. In 1961, the Temperance Act was renamed the Liquor Control Act and the Temperance Commission became the Liquor Control Commission. In 1964, regular liquor licensing was enacted in the province, allowing for nightclubs and lounges to sell liquor.
In 1967, after 68 years, another amendment was put in place when the tourist and individual permits were abolished.
Until well into the 1980s, it remained illegal to have any pubs or taverns in Prince Edward Island. This would result in homes being set up as taverns, which was a new form of bootlegging in the province and one that could result in some stiff fines but most police and authorities took a relaxed approach towards it.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, The Ottawa Journal, Wikipedia, Montreal Gazette, Regina Leader-Post, The Vancouver Province, Vancouver Daily World, The Winnipeg Tribune, Liquor PEI, the Ottawa Citizen, CBC, Discover Charlottetown,